Content warning: The following article contains references to rape, suicide, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and harassment.
The state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against video game publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. on July 20, 2021, alleging the company has “fostered a pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture” that is “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” These accusations are the result of more than two years of investigation by the DFEH, which, according to the suit, “found evidence that Defendants discriminated against female employees in terms and conditions of employment, including compensation, assignment, promotion, termination, constructive discharge, and retaliation,” as well as evidence, “that female employees were subject to sexual harassment.” Activision claimed the lawsuit includes, “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.”
The introduction of the DFEH suit against Activision Blizzard provides an in-depth summary not only of the grounds for the suit but of the gaming industry in general, noting, “Sexism has plagued the male-dominated industry for decades, and increasingly so in recent years,” despite the fact that, “Women and girls now make up almost half of the gamers in America.” The suit notes Activision Blizzard has roughly 9,500 employees, but only about 20% are women.
A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard, one of the largest companies in gaming, provided a statement to Screen Rant in response to the allegations, which included the following. The full statement can be found here.
“We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH […] but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived. They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court.”
This stands in contrast to the text of the suit, via Bloomberg Law, as the DFEH notes it attempted to resolve the matter prior to filing, including mandatory dispute resolution through mediation – an informal, pre-trial meeting of sorts, in which the involved parties discuss the issues and have an opportunity to settle the matter without involving the court system. The suit states, “Specifically, DFEH invited Defendants to participate in a mediation session […] on July 1, 2, and 15, 2021, but the parties were unable to resolve the administrative complaints.”
The Activision Blizzard Lawsuit Alleges Discrimination & Sexual Harassment
The lawsuit details alleged patterns of offering women lower compensation and less lucrative job assignments. As Activision’s CEO recently received a generous executive compensation plan, the lawsuit highlights the disparity in pay between male and female employees of equal position, as well as female employees being passed over for promotion, despite providing superior results. One example states a female employee with highly rated performance reviews who “generated significantly more revenue in her marketing campaigns than her male counterpart” was denied equal pay and passed over for promotion.
Another female employee was reportedly told “they could not risk promoting her as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much” after she assumed some of the responsibilities of a manager and asked her male supervisor about being paid fairly for that work. The lawsuit also alleges a pattern of discrimination against pregnant women, including negative evaluations of employees away on maternity leave and incidents where “female employees were kicked out of lactation rooms so employees could use the room for meetings.”
Labor unions have accused Activision Blizzard of failing to meet diversity requirements, and the allegations of the suit seem to support this, as it also says women of color “were particularly vulnerable targets of Defendant’s discriminatory practices.” The suit cites incidents where male employees were permitted to freely play video games during work time, but a female employee of color had every break closely monitored by her supervisor. In another case, a woman of color was reportedly forced to write an essay about how she planned to use the time off she had requested, something no other employee was required to justify.
Beyond employment discrimination issues, the lawsuit alleges a toxic work environment towards Activision Blizzard’s female employees, one that permitted “numerous jokes about rape,” “groping and unwanted physical touching, and other forms of harassment.” The suit describes a female employee who said “random male employees” would approach her and comment on her breasts, others whose supervisors “hit on them” and made derogatory comments about rape, and a supervisor who encouraged a male subordinate to “‘buy’ a prostitute” to “cure his bad mood.” Former senior creative director for World of Warcraft Alex Afrasaibi is specifically called out as “engaging in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.”
The Activision Blizzard Lawsuit May Be Resolved Outside Of Court
In the Activision Blizzard statement, the spokesperson said, “We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family.“ This appears to reference a segment of the lawsuit that alleges a female employee “committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor.” The section cites allegations that male co-workers had exchanged photos of the female employee’s genitals at a holiday party prior to her death, as told by another female employee.
The DFEH’s lawsuit alleges many other examples of discriminatory employee practices; drunken, abusive behavior by male employees, particularly those in management positions; and an HR department that did not properly address complaints. Instead, “complaints were not kept confidential,” and complainants “experienced retaliation” that included denial of opportunities, involuntary transfers, and layoffs. The suit alleges Activision Blizzard was aware of complaints of discrimination as early as 2015, at which time the company had independent analysists review compensation data, but, “Defendants failed to take effective and reasonable steps to prevent pay discrimination as the pay disparity between male and female employees was not remedied and continued.”
This lawsuit is still in its early days, and litigation of this nature tends to take a great deal of time to resolve. Despite the failure of pre-lawsuit mediations, it is still possible Activision Blizzard and the DFEH will resolve this matter before it ever reaches court. The filing is a civil suit – a government agency enforcing state law using civil litigation – meaning the end result could be monetary compensation, not criminal charges. Its summary of damages requested from Activision Blizzard includes, “Compensatory and punitive damages,” “Unpaid wages,” and “Equitable relief, including but not limited to reinstatement and/or front pay, pay adjustments, backpay, lost wages and benefits,” along with other items such as attorney fees and whatever “Other relief the Court deems to be just and proper.”
In Activision Blizzard’s statement, the spokesperson said, “The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today,” and provided examples of anti-discrimination efforts by the company, including “regular anti-harassment training.” The issues involved in the lawsuit deal with the history of Activision Blizzard’s practices towards its employees, however, not its present-day course corrections – though Activision Blizzard said the DFEH’s descriptions of Blizzard’s past are, “distorted, and in many cases false.” Time will tell if these issues are ever argued before a jury, or if Activision Blizzard Inc.’s defense counsel and the DFEH come to a settlement agreement before trial.
UPDATE – 7/27/2021, 1:00 PM ET: Nearly 1,000 Activision Blizzard employees have signed an open letter voicing their support of the lawsuit. According to Bloomberg, Activision Blizzard employees are also planning a strike outside of Blizzard’s campus to protest the company’s response.
UPDATE – 7/28/21, 12:40 AM ET: Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick issued a public statement regarding the allegations, published via Business Wire on July 27 at 8:45 PM ET. Kotick said, “Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf.” He announced law firm WilmerHale will be conducting a review of Activision Blizzard’s policies and procedures to ensure it maintains “best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace,” and he laid out five action items aimed at implementing “long-lasting change.”
“1. Employee Support. We will continue to investigate each and every claim and will not hesitate to take decisive action. To strengthen our capabilities in this area we are adding additional senior staff and other resources to both the Compliance team and the Employee Relations team.
“2. Listening Sessions. We know many of you have inspired ideas on how to improve our culture. We will be creating safe spaces, moderated by third parties, for you to speak out and share areas for improvement.
“3. Personnel Changes. We are immediately evaluating managers and leaders across the Company. Anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences will be terminated.
“4. Hiring Practices. Earlier this year I sent an email requiring all hiring managers to ensure they have diverse candidate slates for all open positions. We will be adding compliance resources to ensure that our hiring managers are in fact adhering to this directive.
“5. In-game Changes. We have heard the input from employee and player communities that some of our in-game content is inappropriate. We are removing that content.”
The final point echoes an announcement earlier the same day that World of Warcraft is removing references “that are not appropriate for [its] world.” Though not confirmed, this appears to be addressing in-game references to Alex Afrasiabi, the game’s former creative director who the DFEH lawsuit alleged engaged in “blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.”
UPDATE – 7/28/21, 12:20 PM ET: Employees at Activision Blizzard have released a response to Bobby Kotick’s statement ahead of the planned July 28 walkout, detailing the “critical elements at the heart of employee concerns” that the company has still failed to address. Axios‘ Megan Farokhmanesh shared the organizers’ message on Twitter.
Activision Blizzard walkout organizers just released a statement in response to CEO Bobby Kotick’s email to staff in which he described the company’s response as “tone deaf” pic.twitter.com/64D7w8PhOL
— Megan Farokhmanesh (@Megan_Nicolett) July 28, 2021
UPDATE – 7/28/21, 4:40 PM ET: A Kotaku report has detailed the “Cosby Suite,” a hotel room nicknamed by Blizzard employees during BlizzCon 2013 and mentioned in the DFEH lawsuit, via interviews with and social media posts by various current and former employees. For example, in a 2013 Facebook post, former World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi posted a screenshot of a group chat called “BlizzCon Cosby Crew,” in which former Blizzard designer David Kosak said, “I am gathering the hot chixx for the Coz.” As relayed by Kotaku:
“‘Bring em,’ replies Afrasiabi. ‘You can’t marry ALL of them Alex,’ Kosak writes. ‘I can, I’m middle eastern,’ responds Afrasiabi. Jesse McCree, currently a lead game designer at Blizzard, then writes, ‘You misspelled f[**]k.'”
Although the lawsuit says the room was nicknamed “after alleged rapist Bill Crosby [sic],” a few sources told Kotaku it was unrelated to Cosby’s sexual assault allegations. One said it “was a play on the comedian’s iconic ugly sweaters, and didn’t have any sexual connotation—at least, not when the joke began.” But others denied this notion, and as Kotaku pointed out, the group chat and other social posts about the Cosby Suite were overtly sexual in nature. One source told the publication, “It was such a boys club that creating something like the ‘Cosby Suite’ was seen as funny.”
UPDATE – 7/29/21, 4:25 PM ET: Kotaku has reported that WilmerHale, the law firm hired by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to conduct a review of the company’s policies and procedures to ensure it maintains “best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace,” has a union-busting reputation. WilmerHale is the same firm “helping Amazon keep its workers from unionizing,” Kotaku said, and the WilmerHale website advertises services that include “advising on union awareness and avoidance.” Kotick’s letter only explicitly says the law firm will be advising on those Activision Blizzard HR policies, but considering the organization among Activision Blizzard employees following the lawsuit’s filing, WilmerHale’s history could prove significant.
UPDATE – 8/3/21, 12:10 PM ET: Blizzard president J. Allen Brack has stepped down from the position, replaced by co-presidents Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra. In a brief message to the community, Brack said he was confident Oneal and Ybarra “will accelerate the pace of change” at the company. Although Blizzard’s statement did not directly mention the allegations or lawsuit, it said the new leadership is committed to inclusivity and safety.
“Both leaders are deeply committed to all of our employees; to the work ahead to ensure Blizzard is the safest, most welcoming workplace possible for women, and people of any gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or background; to upholding and reinforcing our values; and to rebuilding your trust. With their many years of industry experience and deep commitment to integrity and inclusivity, Jen and Mike will lead Blizzard with care, compassion, and a dedication to excellence. You’ll hear more from Jen and Mike soon.”
UPDATE – 8/3/21, 4:50 PM ET: As reported by Bloomberg, Blizzard’s senior people officer “and the unit’s top HR representative,” Jesse Meschuk, has also left the company.
UPDATE – 8/3/21, 8:15 PM ET: In a letter to CEO Bobby Kotick (via IGN), a coalition of Activision Blizzard employees called The ABK Workers Alliance criticized law firm WilmerHale’s selection for an internal audit of Activision Blizzard’s policies and practices. The letter cited concerns over WilmerHale’s “pre-existing relationships with Activision Blizzard and its executives” and “history of discouraging workers’ rights and collective action,” as well as that WilmerHale review leader Stephanie Avakian “specializes in protecting the wealthy and powerful.” The ABK Workers Alliance also called on Kotick to “do better,” saying his July 27 letter “did not meaningfully address” employees’ requests.
“You ignored our call for an end to mandatory arbitration. You did not commit to adopting inclusive recruitment and hiring practices. You made no comment on pay transparency.”
Additionally, speaking to Axios, four current and former Activision Blizzard employees said HR representatives “bullied, belittled, or showed skepticism after being informed of alleged harassment or assault.” One former employee, Nicki Broderick, told Axios “an HR rep told her she was ‘acting like a brat,’ [and …] she was told to ‘suck it up’ and return to her desk.” An Activision Blizzard spokesperson told Axios:
“We will not tolerate anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences. If employees have any concerns about how Human Resources handled claims, we have other reporting options, including anonymous ones.”
UPDATE – 8/3/21, 11:45 AM ET: Upcomer reports Activision Blizzard chief compliance officer and former U.S. Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend deactivated her Twitter after “blocking a slew of employees and tweeting out an article describing ‘the problem with whistleblowing.'” This follows a reported leaked internal email from Townsend that echoed Activision Blizzard’s initial PR statement, writing the lawsuit “presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories.” She also reportedly wrote, “We cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees.”
UPDATE – 8/11/21, 7:55 PM ET: Diablo 4 game director Luis Barriga is no longer working for Blizzard, the company confirmed to Kotaku today, along with lead designer Jesse McCree and World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft. Kotaku reports they were “let go” from Blizzard, though an Activision Blizzard spokesperson’s response to the publication said only that they “are no longer with the company.”
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